For My Mother

Written by Matt Ortile

Author Matt Ortile honors his late mother's influence on his life and writing in this heartrending tribute to the power of book dedications.

When the good people at Mailchimp asked me to curate a series of essays for their Summer Reading Program, I jumped at the chance to elevate writers I love, collecting their stories in this time of isolation. The theme for this series is connection because we, the people, are irrevocably linked by our shared humanity. There is no getting away from one another. We can, however, tell each other the truth, and listen with open hearts when the truth is spoken. Or written. I curated a series of creative nonfiction essays because I wanted you to feel the bare-knuckle truth in the words of these writers. When they swing for you, I want the blow to connect. Contributing authors write about relationships to parents, spouses, children, homes, bodies, and self. They write about threads running through the veins of us all. They write about the way we are all subject to each other’s lives and decisions, offering themselves to reality instead of running from the inevitable pain of the world. I’m so grateful. Nothing about this project would be as powerful without the inclusion of each contribution from each artist. Well, you could have been anywhere on the internet, but you’re here with us, and I can’t thank you enough for that. I’m so excited for you to read these essays. My hope is when you do, you’ll feel a little tug on the threads in your own veins. I hope you follow them all the way to the end.

All my best, Ashley

Author

Matt Ortile

Matt Ortile is the author of the essay collection The Groom Will Keep His Name. He is the managing editor of Catapult magazine and was the founding editor of BuzzFeed Philippines. He is a MacDowell Colony Fellow and has written for BuzzFeed News, Vogue, Condé Nast Traveler, Self, and Out, among others. He is a graduate of Vassar College, which means he now lives in Brooklyn.

  • As a kid, I thought book dedications were for the dead. 

    In honor of. In memory of. Most of my childhood favorites memorialized someone no longer with us. Lemony Snicket—the author Daniel Handler’s pen name-character—dedicates all the books in A Series of Unfortunate Events to a woman named Beatrice. “My love for you shall live forever,” he tells her in the dedication for The Reptile Room. “You, however, did not.” 

    In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis honors his goddaughter Lucy. He began the work when she was still a child. It took Lewis about ten years to go from conception to publication. “As a result you are already too old for fairy tales,” he tells Lucy in his dedication. The book was written for some version of her, long gone. But Lewis hoped Lucy might remember him whenever she opens it, wherever he may be, living or dead, always her godfather.

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry asks forgiveness from his child readers for dedicating Le Petit Prince to an adult, the writer Leon Werth. “I have a serious reason,” Saint-Exupéry writes. “He is the best friend I have in the world.” To compromise, he amends the dedication: “To Leon Werth, when he was a little boy.” Honoring another past, a memory—a life.

    Of course, I know now as an adult, dedications are for the living as well as the dead—even the abstract. (“Dedicated to America,” Kerouac writes in Visions of Cody, “whatever that is.”) But by and large, most book dedications are not extraordinary, though no less heartfelt. For Grandpapa, they might say, with no indication of how intimately the authors or their beloveds are acquainted with death. For my wife. Para kay Lola. Pour Maman. 

    My first book is dedicated to my mother. With a title like The Groom Will Keep His Name, it might’ve been more fitting to stick to my initial plan, which I declared on my dating profiles: “Looking for someone to dedicate my book to.” But by the time I completed Groom’s final draft, I’d no human groom of my own. Just as well; the central love story in the book is my relationship with myself, as a gay Filipino immigrant unlearning the miseducation of American white supremacy. Another important love it honors is the one I share with my mother.

    She was alive when I wrote the book. In fact, she helped me write it. For much of 2019, our phone calls resembled interviews. I was writing about our past—our coming-to-America, our tumultuous growing-up together (me, puberty; her, menopause)—and my memory was blurry. The trauma I endured in Las Vegas as a teen, bullied for being brown, queer, and Other, left my recollections impressionistic; smudgy up close and softened. In my mother’s mind, those years were in agonizing chiaroscuro. To write, I turned to her. She was an oral historian, my primary source.

    In doing research for Groom, I asked my mother to recount things like our US citizenship process, the Marcos dictatorship and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, her marriages to my birth father and my stepfather. At the end of a particularly long call (I needed the timeline of her chemotherapy treatments for cancer), she began to laugh.

    “Do you remember,” she said, “when I came home from work and I got mad at you for eating that donut?” I remember it well; I was a gluttonous brat who didn’t notice the Post-It on the Krispy Kreme box that said to save the last glazed bun for her.

    When I asked why that came to mind, she mentioned how it had seemed like our past together as immigrant mother and son was so difficult. Now, with time and distance, my mother said, “It just makes me laugh.”

  • We reminisced this way, recalled times we were together, because we were apart. 

    From my home in New York, I called her often in Manila, where she lived with my stepfather. We checked in, gave updates, and dove into the past. Our relationship thrived on verbal communication, so we weren’t good about being pen pals. A search for her email address in my inbox turns up only fifty emails over seven years. The oldest is from 2013, about how to do my taxes. Most of our correspondences were logistical: phone bills, itineraries for Rome and Paris, receipts from Sephora for the products I brought her whenever I visited.

    The subject of my last email to her: Scanning GROOM for Dad’s and your appearances. I gave her a PDF of the manuscript, and a reading guide to pinpoint where she and my stepfather are mentioned. “I hope nothing in here about how you and Dad are represented is a surprise,” I say in the email, “since you’ve been such a vital part of the writing process.”

    In a different email, from 2017, she writes, “Hi anak — sharing a writing workshop you may want to participate in.” The subject line: FW: Let Your Loved Ones Know What They Mean to You. She signs off with a kiss. “Mwah. Your Mom.”

    Present tense, I was taught in school, must be used when quoting from written material. To deploy it here is a comfort. My mother writes. My mother says. My mother loves me. It is jarring now, to refer to my mother in the past—was, rather than is.

    When I began this essay, my mother was alive, but only just. “Neurologically incapacitated,” as my stepfather, a surgeon, described her. He had been taking care of my mother since her cancer returned in the summer of 2019, three years after she first went into remission. I visited them for my birthday in the fall and for the winter holidays. This year’s spring trip was canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    It was Mother’s Day when she could still speak clearly, when she told me to stay in New York. It was—still is—too dangerous to pass multiple airports, to cross disorganized borders, to risk bringing another invisible killer into our home. My stepfather agreed. My birth father did too. All three of my parents, finally on the same team. 

    So I stayed. I published my book in the middle of a pandemic, amidst a revolution, as my mother lay dying. I took Groom on a virtual tour. In conversations with brilliant friends, I talked about the book in front of my laptop and a ring light, with my phone standing by for that life-shattering call. My friends were cautious to not bring up my mother on camera. But smart and kind readers in the audience, having loved my love for her in my writing, could not help but ask.

    There was a ticket to my launch event under my mother’s name. When someone on Twitter said the registration site was broken, I tested the process myself. It worked when I entered in my credit card info and my mother’s name. Why not, I thought—maybe she and Dad could tune in from Manila.

    But in the early hours of June 2, Groom’s publication day, my stepfather called. “I think you and I have had our last conversations with her,” he said. She was unable to speak and largely unresponsive. The tumors, metastatic breast cancer cells scattered over her skeleton, had finally reached her brain. My own tried to recall when we last spoke. It may have been when she cut our chat short, yanking out her earbuds and telling my stepfather to take away the phone—“Ayaw ko na.”

    When I recounted this to my stepfather, he said, “She was in so much anguish.”

    “Physical,” I said, “or emotional?” 

    He began to cry. I told him the last thing my mother told me: “I love you."

  • Unable to connect with my mother, I turned to my mother in the book. In one chapter, she encourages me to pursue my life and career in New York, to face my fear of failing at both, of going it alone. There is valor in simply trying, she tells me, because “this is the whole point.” She came to the US with no guarantee that we’d luck out the way we did, that I’d enjoy the privileges I have today—to write and tell stories, to amplify the voices of those often unheard, to do good and do better than those before us. Because of her choices as a mother, I’ve the chance to make her proud as her son.

    And as in all episodes of my life where she was not beside me, my mother reminds me: These are steps I must take by myself. “Kaya mo yan,” she tells me—then and now. “Mana ka sa’kin.”

    She’s right. Among the things I’ve inherited from her is the conviction to keep going, to gracefully bear the wins and losses of life. Our immigrant life, in particular, has taught us how to love across and despite distance, how to carry our beloveds with us, wherever they may be, in this life or even the next. The love I shared with my mother was not epistolary, it’s true. But the stories I tell and write—each sentence, each word, each keystroke—is a love letter to her. 

    My mother is alive in my stories, in how I remember and reconjure her, in the written present tense. I suppose that’s another gift of the book dedication, of writing: In honoring someone in its pages, a book becomes a bridge to that person, a way to connect. It gives me joy to think that others will get to know my mother too, that she will live in the memory of everyone who reads my book. They will know her as I have written her, and I hope I have written her well.

    As I finish this essay, my mother has since died. Serenely, my stepfather said, on a quiet Saturday, at around three o’clock in the afternoon, local time. I missed the first fifty calls from my family; my phone had died in the middle of the night, just as my mother herself began to decline. I woke up seven hours later, morning in New York, to see the uncaring black mirror of my phone. When my stepfather picked up, I cried and screamed at the screen, apologizing between sobs.

    “Don’t be sorry,” he assured me on the video call. He was wearing a mask and a face shield at the funeral parlor. “I’m not mad at you, of course not.” 

    After all, my stepfather and my friends—whom I called one by one, who held me and loved me on a gorgeous Brooklyn day—were all in agreement: My mother was the one to turn off my phone, to give me a peaceful night’s sleep, to ensure I’d be virtually surrounded by my chosen family once I heard the news. That afternoon, on the train to pay my respects at a church, I looked for my mother in my book. I had no need for the reading guide I gave her. She was there on every page.

    On the last day of my winter trip to visit her, she was confined in the hospital. I committed the scene to memory—paper gown, IV stand, bags and tubes of liquid nutrition—thinking it could very well be the last time I saw my mother in person. You’re being dramatic, I told myself at the time. I’ve unfailingly trusted my dramatic instincts since. 

    But, as I sat at her bedside and held her hand, I also willed myself to imagine a different future: coming back in a few months, with finished copies of Groom in tow. I pictured the look on her face, the guaranteed tears of joy, when she would read my book’s dedication page, heartfelt and ordinary: For my mother.

    By dedicating my book to her, I let my mother know what she means to me. After all, I have a serious reason. She is the best friend I have in the world. Whenever I open my book, I remember her, wherever she may be, always my mother. To her, I would like to say: Ma, my love for you shall live forever. And, in these pages, so will you.